Free the books from the apps
A small hack to (almost) liberate digital books from the cages they are locked in
In 2012 the designer and writer Craig Mod wrote a beautiful essay on what is happening to book covers in the age of the iPad and, mostly, in the age of Amazon as the de-facto universal bookstore.
He wrote about the strategies designers and publishers were and still are applying to book covers design. Squeezed in smaller and smaller squares, books need to put up a new fight and use new approaches to get attention. One of the trends he highlighted was the need for covers to become icons, simplifying their design to be readable and recognizable everywhere.
Amazon is the battlefield where books fight for a purchase but where do they go once they convinced us to “Buy now with 1-Click®”? A digital book home is elsewhere: in our Kindles, in the Kindle app, in iBooks, in Google Play Books… Once there, however, the books are stuck. Hidden away. No clever or beautiful cover design can help a book emerge back, not even the books that accepted their fate and completed the metamorphosis to icon can escape.
Because if the home screen of our phones and tablets is the modern version of the desk, digital books are nowhere in sight there. They are stashed in a drawer, labeled with a small icon of person reading under a tree, a double page on an orange field, a triangle icon with… a book inside?
Paper books have a presence: they sit somewhere. They are designed for me to notice them, pick them up, open the cover and read them. They could lie on my desk, waiting. Or they could sit on a shelf in my apartment, because they are beautiful and important pieces of my identity: I want to remind myself what I read and what I still have to read. Do you know anyone—even non-readers—that stashes their books into closed drawers? Me neither.
Digital books, however, don’t have any kind of evident presence in our devices. Unlike apps and games, they are second-class citizens. They fight an unwinnable battle against the first law of interaction design: «out of sight, out of mind».
And to make things worse, the containers they are hidden in are bland and generic. There’s not a gram of personality in the icons above and it’s really hard to form an emotional connection with them, unlike you would with a book with a beautiful cover.
So, I’m trying a little thing: what if the books were free? What if I could drag a book out of the Kindle app cage and have it on the home screen? Would I read more? Would I pause one second before going straight for the Reddit icon and consider reading a chapter of Murakami instead? Would I choose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over Twitter?
I don’t know, but I’m trying.
Clearly iOS doesn’t support this. There’s no “Add to home” functionality in iBooks or in the Kindle app. What I’m doing is a little hack, and not a hack on my phone but a hack on my brain. The last three icons on my home screen above are books I’m reading: Norwegian Wood from Haruki Murakami, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer and Show your work! by Austin Kleon. They are there but if I click on them nothing interesting happens: they are just links to empty webpages I created. I cropped the covers in Photoshop, turned them into favicons, uploded them my domain and finally added them to my home screen using Safari’s “Add to home” functionality (because of course you can add a webpage to your home screen but not a book). Right now, these covers are nothing more than fancy sticky notes.
But I want to see if these fancy sticky notes can gently push me in the direction of reading more. Small reminders that books are often more interesting than any other app competing for my attention.